On a Sunday around September of last year, just as Erica Givner’s husband was getting ready to throw something into a dumpster, local muralist Kyle Holbrook parked in a clearing on the side of Givner’s property. According to Givner, Holbrook had paint in the back of his truck and was preparing to “tag” a mural on the side of her building, and told her husband that they couldn’t touch his artwork without his permission.
The encounter took place some time after Givner painted over one of Holbrook’s old murals that was on her recently renovated building at the intersection of Wood and Franklin streets in Wilkinsburg.
Coincidentally, the police happened to pass by during the encounter and helped manage the dispute. The police took Holbrook’s information down and he left, saying that the property owners will be “getting papers in the mail.”
While the murals were painted more than a decade ago, Holbrook is citing the Visual Artists Rights Act and contending that the property owner can’t modify his murals in any way — even if it means bringing the building up to occupancy standards to provide services to the community.
Givner received a cease and desist letter from Holbrook’s lawyer, Andrew Rozynski, in December.
Holbrook declined to comment on the encounter with Givner’s husband or the cease and desist letter, saying it is a matter of “ongoing litigation.”
Addressed to Givner and her colleague Felicia Robinson, the letter notes that Holbrook has rights to the murals on 620 and 613-619 Wood St., and by “destructing” the murals, the property owners have violated the Visual Artists Rights Act [VARA]. The letter also called for a halt to any “additional destruction” and for Holbrook to receive, “monetary compensation for his emotional and reputational damage caused by your destruction, mutilation, and modification of his Murals.”
Meant to educate and inspire, murals faded
Holbrook, a Pittsburgh-born muralist with artwork around the city and the world, in 2002 founded the Moving the Lives of Kids [MLK] Mural Project with a vision to engage youth of different backgrounds by working with them to create vibrant public art. For Wilkinsburg especially, the project initially aimed to provide safe spaces for young people who may otherwise engage in gang activity.
“It’s using art as a tool to be able to educate, inspire, work with a lot of different special needs populations like autism, victims of domestic violence or gun violence,” Holbrook told PublicSource. “Public art is public and it’s visible. … It gets a maximum amount of viewers, which could be millions every year.”
In the summer of 2007, youth and community members gathered together to paint the collection of murals on Wood Street in Wilkinsburg. Created through the Community Mural Project, the colorful murals depicted the faces of young people and historical figures.
That summer, the mural project also had community members paint a collection of murals along the Wilkinsburg busway. When painting of the murals wrapped up, the project hosted an unveiling event by an outdoor gazebo at 613-619 Wood St., which government officials and community leaders attended.
While the murals at the intersection of Wood and Franklin were once vibrant and bold, by the time the current property owner, Givner, bought the buildings in 2015 and 2017, they had faced much wear from time. The buildings were in uninhabitable states, according to Givner — with the windows and doors boarded up, damaged bricks and chipped paint.
Now a section of one mural is completely painted over while the other is partially modified as a result of exterior changes to the building.
Murals as community expression
Thomas Mitchell, the vice president of the Wilkinsburg Sanctuary Project for Peace, didn’t know much about the murals created in 2007, but noted the benefits of projects like the MLK Mural Project, including offering young people safe and legal ways to express themselves. He added that the Sanctuary Project, which aims to end youth and gun violence in Wilkinsburg, has worked with the mural project several times to offer summer programs to young people.
“The young people can express themselves in different ways. They can express their artwork more legally,” said Mitchell.
Holbrook said one reason he founded the MLK Community Mural Project was to allow youth to express themselves and to reduce gang graffiti in the neighborhood.
“[In] Wilkinsburg, where I grew up, all the walls where there’s murals now used to be gang graffiti, and none of them … have ever been tagged [since the murals were painted] and so I think it’s a way to enhance communities, and to be a voice for the voiceless.”
Public artwork like murals also often raise awareness for issues that a community may be facing.
“Most of my childhood friends … are in jail. A couple are doing life, but most of them have been victims of gun violence. And I’ve been shot at myself several times,” said Holbrook. “I feel like, because of the circumstances in the life that I’ve seen, I think it’s my duty as an artist and a public artist, to share the importance in this epidemic that’s going around all around the country.”
Even for community members who may not know a particular artist’s inspiration, public art still has the ability to engage and contextualize communities.
“A couple of the faces [in Wilkinsburg’s murals] remind me of people I know. I think it looks great. And now it puts the community in context as well,” said Ruth Kittner, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Ministry, a nonprofit food provider located on Wood Street.
“There’s so many of these buildings, the paint is peeling and the brick is shredding and it’s just, it looks decrepit and dilapidated,” Kittner said, “and by putting the murals on, it gives the community an expression of its colors, art … It puts a different value on the place and it makes the built environment look less worn down.”
Do renovations collide with federal art law?
Givner bought 620 Wood St. back in 2015 and completely gutted and renovated the building over the course of four years. After the building met the borough’s occupancy standards, Givner and Robinson started running the nonprofit organization, A Peace of Mind, in it. Founded in 2014, the nonprofit aims to improve community wellness through programs like yoga classes and hip-hop aerobics, and provides 20-hour-per-day childcare services.
After finishing work on 620, Givner began renovating 613-619 — a process that took over three years and was slowed by the pandemic. While exterior renovations on 620 only partially modified the murals on the building, that wasn’t the case with the 613-619 as Givner had to replace many bricks, windows and doors and then point the brick on the exterior walls.
By the time renovations and exterior modifications were complete, much of the original mural on 613-619 Wood St. was damaged from mortar pointing, so Givner decided to just put a fresh coat of paint on the building. Givner now operates Vision Towards Peace out of the newly renovated building, where she provides mental health and counseling services.
Prior to her husband’s encounter with Holbrook and receipt of the cease and desist letter, Givner knew no reason she wouldn’t be able to paint over the murals. But according to the federal statute that Hobrook is using as his main argument, artists sometimes have certain rights over how their public-facing work can be touched or modified.
The Visual Artists Rights Act was enacted in 1990 and aims to protect the rights of artists for “visual art” meant for public display, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and — if they meet certain requirements — murals.
Holbrook also cited VARA in 2018 when he sued the City of Pittsburgh and a developer after they destroyed a mural the city earlier commissioned him to paint. The case ended in a settlement in 2021, and Holbrook declined to comment on the matter.
“In American law, the VARA is a very limited, narrow form of moral rights,” said Michael Madison, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who focuses on copyright and intellectual property law. “So these rights to prevent damage and destruction, the right to get appropriate credit, only applies to a very small category of creative things.”
Madison noted that in order for a piece of art, especially a mural, to fall under the VARA’s protection, it must meet certain criteria.
“The right to prevent it from being destroyed only applies if the visual work is a work of recognized stature. So this right to prevent something from being destroyed does not apply to every artwork, does not apply to every painting, does not apply to every mural, it only applies to a very small number of things that meet this legal phrase,” said Madison.
Holbrook’s cease and desist letter argues that the artist has a “notable prominence” in the Wilkinsburg community as a muralist and his murals have gained recognition from “noteworthy” individuals including other muralists, the former U.S. Secretary of Housing Alphonso Jackson and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. It also notes that the late Pittsburgh-born rapper Mac Miller did a photoshoot in front of the murals on Wood Street.
Madison said most murals in Pittsburgh likely do not meet the criteria to be considered a “work of recognized stature.” He said it’s hard to claim that a work is of recognized stature if it’s not well known in the art world “beyond Pittsburgh, even if they’re known beyond the neighborhood.”
Madison said that applying VARA raises questions about the relative weights of the artist’s copyright and the owner’s rights.
“This is where things get very, very tricky and they get very, very difficult for the artist: This right to prevent something from being destroyed, where the physical object is owned by somebody else,” said Madison.
One case from 2018 suggests that public art on a building can have recognized stature. The 5Pointz case from New York, which Holbrook’s lawyer cites in the cease and desist letter, involved a collection of murals and graffiti art that was on several buildings owned by the same property owner. The artworks were done by a group of artists, and were internationally recognized by the art world. After a developer bought and demolished the building, the artists sued the developer under VARA. A court ruled in favor of the artists, and the developer had to pay the group of artists $6.75 million.
Madison noted that the New York case is different from any case that may exist in Pittsburgh.
“Everybody in the art world, and especially everybody in the graffiti world in New York, knew about 5Pointz,” Madison said. That isn’t likely to be true of Pittsburgh-area murals, he said.
While declining to comment on the situation with Givner, Holbrook said that even though some of his murals in Wilkinsburg are decades old, his past work becomes more valuable as he becomes better known in the art world.
“The murals are worth more than the buildings they’re on,” said Holbrook.
Why is VARA emerging now?
While VARA does protect the rights of artists up until their death, Givner wondered why Holbrook decided to take claim to the artworks only years after she had started exterior work on the buildings, and when she had already painted over one of them.
“Both buildings had been worked on for literally this last seven years and permits had to be issued. And all of a sudden he pops up and has this type of ownership,” said Givner.
Holbrook said he wants more people to be aware of artists’ rights, especially property owners who may buy buildings with murals on them but don’t know about the federal statute.
“I’m doing this really because I have some notoriety and especially in the field of public art, where I can be the person to draw attention for the rights of all artists,” said Holbrook.
Givner agrees with Holbrook on one thing: That there’s not universal awareness of VARA.
She said property owners may buy buildings with murals on them not knowing that the artist could potentially make a claim.
“It could financially harm or ruin a business that’s really trying to make an impact to a vulnerable population,” said Givner.
She said she “would have never thought it was a problem,” given that the previous owner never mentioned the mural when she bought it, and there were no notes about the artist’s rights in any of the sale documents.
Givner called for state legislation that would require commissioned murals and the artists’ rights to be noted in property documents.
Givner said that while she sees value in art curbing violence and bridging communities, she wishes she had known about VARA and what it might mean for her property earlier.
“And as you can tell, I wouldn’t have painted it, because I’ve got the other buildings, I only did what I needed to do to bring the building up to occupancy and build it up to code and … to be able to provide such a needed service in the community.”
Betul Tuncer is an editorial intern at PublicSource and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.
Do you feel more informed?
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.